Massive contributions to unrestricted political committees drove spending on Seattle City Council candidates to more than double this year compared with the council’s last major round of elections.
Councilmember M. Lorena González noted the spike Wednesday as the committee she chairs began considering her nationally watched proposal to limit contributions to independent political-action committees (PACs).
Such PACs today can raise and spend as much as they want, as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates, and they spent $4 million for and against the Nov. 5 general-election candidates in Seattle’s seven council races, according to Dec. 3 data presented by council staff.
That’s six times more than such PACs spent on Seattle’s general-election candidates in 2015, when all nine of the council’s seats were up for grabs.
Many Americans “have lost faith that their vote even counts at all when we have a super-PAC system like the one we do now,” González said. “I do believe that people in Seattle want to see big money out of politics.”
The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s PAC spent much more than any other, dropping $1.8 million on the candidates and hundreds of thousands of dollars more on polling, consulting and other expenses. Amazon was the top PAC donor by a mile, dumping $1.5 million into the Chamber’s PAC.
Amazon’s involvement was a huge topic of conversation in the weeks leading up to Election Day, and most Chamber-endorsed candidates were defeated.
This year’s PAC spending on general-election candidates, together with cash, in-kind and democracy voucher contributions made directly to those candidates, totaled $7.3 million, according to Wednesday’s presentation, or about $1 million per race.
That’s more than double the $3.4 million total from 2015, which amounted to less than $400,000 per race.
Spending by independent PACs accounted for about 55% of the total this year, up from 20% in 2015.
González’s legislation would, among other provisions, cap contributions to most independent PACs to $5,000. Dubbed the “Clean Campaigns Act” by the council member, the legislation would make an exception for groups using money from many small donors to make large PAC contributions.
For example, a group using donations from at least 150 people would be allowed to contribute more than $5,000 to a PAC involved in a race for one of the council’s district seats. The exception would likely apply to labor unions, which use member dues. Multiple unions contributed from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to PACs this year.
The proposal is backed by reformers who hope to see such a law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, and supporters from across the country spoke at Wednesday’s meeting. They want to challenge the idea that the 2010 Citizens United case, which greatly expanded spending by PACs, also prohibits limits on donations to those PACs. González said her committee will continue discussing her proposal next week.